The more I observe the incidents of critical product recalls involving highly sensitive food and drug related supply chains originating from China, the more outraged I, and all of us should become regarding this culture of insensitivity toward human life and widespread suffering.  The recent incidents involving the contamination of the life saving drug heparin, pet food, and now milk safety, show a consistent pattern of initial high visibility and regulatory focus to the targeted contaminated end product, followed by days or months of tracing back to the origins of the raw material supply chain uncovering the real scope and magnitude of the problem.  This has often proved to be too late and too time consuming to protect consumer safety, and masks the real problem, which was further upstream in the origins of the supply chain.

The latest tragic incident of contaminated infant formula in China is now playing itself out through various milk suppliers, with implications to other dairy and food related products.  Since Supply Chain Matters initial post on this incident on September 12 (Baby Formula Recall in China- Another Product Safety Concern), Chinese health officials now indicate nearly 53,000 children have been sickened, of whom 158 are reported with kidney failure. Tragically, there have been four reported deaths of infants.

The origin of this latest contamination is diluted milk in which the industrial chemical melamine has been added to mask protein count in quality tests. The chemical melamine was also the target of the pet food contamination problem in 2007, where 700 tons of wheat gluten exported to the U.S. was suspected of being laced with this harmful chemical.  Thousands of cats and dogs died as a result of that incident.  The incident related to the critical blood thinning drug heparin in early 2008 involved a Chinese factory as a suspected source of the contamination. A compound made from animal or shark cartilage, which was seven times cheaper than the inert heparin drug, was substituted by a downstream supplier.  That incident resulted in 82 deaths and hundreds sickened in the U.S. and other countries.

As more and more information leaks out regarding this incident, there are indications that Sanlu, China’s largest producer of infant formula was aware of the magnitude of the problem as far back as August, but neglected to make full disclosure due to the sensitivity for the upcoming Olympic games being held in China.  Once acknowledgement was made of the potential human extent of the infant formula problem, the Chinese central government has been fairly quick to move beyond the apparent coverup and inspect its nationwide producers of milk.  Those inspections have revealed that the problem is much more widespread, with melamine found in samples of milk from many other dairy producers, including two of China’s largest producers. Other world brands,  such as Fonterra and Nestle,  are being dragged into the effects of this scandal on their supply chains.  Meanwhile the World Heath Organization indicated this scandal highlighted flaws in the country’s entire food supply chain which caused the resignation of the minister of China’s Quality Supervision and Inspection agency. China’s central government is now taking extraordinary actions to assure its citizens that food supply chains are safe.  The suspected contamination has spread beyond the mainland, with Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong recalling Chinese-made dairy products, breads and candies made from these products.

Chinese consumers, and all of us as citizens of this world, are rightfully outraged by these terrible incidents. While the government of China has extraordinary means to manage the after effects of this situation, including the potential death penalty to any specific individuals involved, the fundamental problem of corruption in a supposedly requlated supply chain remains. I and other bloggers will be no doubt penning additional posts on the lessons learned and watch outs for the broader supply chain community, but for now, my thoughts and concerns are with the citizens of China who must deal with the after effects of this tragedy and absolutely demand reforms to their food supply chain. The question is whether the sickening and death of innocent children will prove to be the turning point.

What’s your view?  Do you feel that China’s central government can reform its regulation and safety of food and drug-related supply chains?  If your supply chain involves Chinese supply, are you concerned toward action?

 Bob Ferrari